Maria Daniela Castillo
The Victoria Falls and Harare
One of the best views, hands down.
The Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls are one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The Falls are on the Zambezi River, and both Zambia and Zimbabwe, at Livingstone and Victoria Falls, respectively, have Vic Falls National Parks. The Zambezi river originates near the border between Zambia and Angola and joins the Chobe river a few kilometers West from the Falls. This is the only place in the world where four countries almost meet at the exact same location. Although, as my brother would put it, it is mathematically impossible to have such a border with three neighboring countries – you can only have borders with two countries in one location. It is easier to see the map below to kind of understand what I am talking about. This situation makes the border between Bots and Zambia the smallest one in the world, only 150 meters wide. And in reality, Namibia doesn’t have a city in this area, but they wanted access to the Chobe and Zambezi rivers. These rivers are relatively untouched by humans…
While my plan was to stay in Victoria Falls, Zim, and do a day trip to Livingstone to check out the city and go to Devils Pool (in Livingstone island), I had some issues with my visa (though for most other nationalities it is easy to get a visa on arrival) and ended up crossing the border from Kasane to Livingstone through Kazungula instead. It was easy for me to obtain a visa on arrival there. There is something called a KASA visa that works to cross between Zambia and Zim multiple times, but Colombians don’t have access to it. At the border, a shared taxi to town will cost about $25 USD. I chose to stay at Jollyboys Backpackers hostel as it had good reviews and other travelers had recommended it to me. It was only slightly pricier than other similar hostels. Food options were limited but good (not great), the staff were helpful and had lots of recommendations for activities, and the location was great. Near the hostel, I was able exchange money and get a sim card and put some data at a kiosk, although the provider, MTN, wasn’t letting me purchase/register one with my passport/visa. Luckily the staff were extremely helpful and sorted things out for me, but it took close to an hour.
In the Victoria Falls, I did the two top activities I had on my list: Devil’s Pool and whitewater rafting, $115 and $150, respectively. Both are HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. While they both look scary, once I met the guides, and saw how comfortable and cautious they are, I felt at ease. Also, I was lucky to coincidentally be visiting the Falls at the best time of the year. When there is too much water, around March, there is so much mist that it is hard to see anything besides rainbows. Devil’s Pool had just opened two weeks prior to my visit as the water levels were still high before, making it hard to swim and impossible to sit next to the cliff. Rafting had also picked up again recently.
Devil’s Pool tours has different time options, starting at 7:30am. I wanted to do this one expecting to catch the sunrise, but by 7 the sun was already up and the water was very cold still, so I chose the 9am one. The start point is near the park entrance in Livingstone, meaning that those coming from Zim must start their trip there much earlier to cross the border. After a quick debrief of the activity, there’s a 10-min boat ride to Livingstone Island. There, drop the life jackets (yep, as if the boat ride was more dangerous than the pool) and get ready for a swim. Forget about the temperature of the water; jump in and swim towards the guide, maybe 15 m parallel to the falls’ drop. But don’t worry, there are two ropes installed a little closer to the drop in case you drift away a bit; and the guides also have ropes and can clearly swim quickly.
After a quick swim with the group, you finally arrive at Devil’s Pool and sit on the rocks next to it while person by person does their thing. The guide goes first and asks you to swim towards him. Then you sit down, make sure your legs are under the rock holding yourself up. Then, it’s time to move to the edge where the guide grabs your ankles and while you reach the edge, head hanging above the falls and arms up (I found it better than having my arms in the water because then I could feel the current pushing them). The other guide is calmly walking right on the edge taking hundreds of photos and videos. They’re both barefoot, comfortable, and reassuring. The view from there is absolutely insane - it is crystal clear how incredibly unique it is. I really don’t think the view from any other falls will ever compare to it. The feeling of having my head hanging there for a few minutes while feeling the water falling with an incredible force, as well as seeing a full rainbow that stretched from the bottom of the falls on either side up to the sky with all the mist and people watching us from the Zim side is something I’ll never forget. It is also fun to see everyone’s reactions when they get to the edge, and see everyone go from scared to relaxed. The swim back, though, felt more intense. We had to swim through and stay focused and calmed. But even then, the guide had to throw the rope at us to hold on to it. Back on the ground, in the Eastern Cataract of Livingstone Island, we had a hearty breakfast (porridge or BLT sandwich) with tea and coffee. The entire tour only takes 1.5 hr.
The whitewater rafting was also incredible. It’s essentially the same in both Zambia and Zim, though maybe us in Zambia did one extra rapid at the end. At Jollyboys I was recommended Safpar, so that’s who I went with. There were 21 rapids in total, classes 1 through 5 (5 being the most extreme for non-professionals). The pick-up time is between 7:30 and 8am. We went to the Safpar waterfront and then to the Vic Falls park. There are instructions given at both sites. We were broken into two groups of 5. Besides the main guide, our raft had another guide paddling with us. And then there were two guys on kayaks per raft. Essentially, lots of eyes and people taking care of each other. We walked down to the bottom of the Falls, got on the rafts, were taught how to paddle and were off.
All the rapids were relatively close to each other, and several of them were class 5. Luckily there is enough time to get used to the raft and the water before the hard ones come at us, around Rapids 7-10. Class 5 ones aren’t bad, it’s a matter of paddling hard, jumping in, holding onto the lines hard, and getting back up quickly to paddle some more. The hardest are those that are long, that have some swirls underneath, one with a big (~4 m) drop, or when two or more rapids are back-to-back. The guide gives instructions before the rapid and tells us whether we’re going to have to go down or keep paddling. So, we would hear the signal “stop and go down” and then “get up now, paddle forward.” And when paddling, we’d hear him saying “forward, forward, forward” or “dig deep, dig deep” or “back paddle, back paddle, back paddle.” An interesting rapid is “the washing machine.” Naturally, we must stay away from that crazy wave by going on the sides, but the river is wide enough at that point. Luckily, we never flipped, nor did anyone fall out of the raft. The other raft, though, flipped in Rapid 9, with most staying under the raft, and one person grabbing on to a kayak and then getting on our boat. After being taken away by the water close to 50 m, they managed to flip the raft and get back on. No one got hurt and everyone had fun. Towards the end, there is a part that is very calm, where we got to drink water, eat some snacks and relax for a bit, though it was sunny and hot.
The hike back to the top feels hard. It’s a very steep climb of about 250 m that takes more than 30 mins, carrying the paddle and life jacket too. There’s more water at the truck waiting for us to take us back to the waterfront. The nice thing of Safpar is that, besides having relatively large groups of people going with them, they give a discount to do a dinner boat cruise on the same day of the rafting, which doesn’t happen with Livingstone Adventures, for example, though I heard great things about them and their guides. After that, I just quickly went to the Vic Falls, though after seeing the falls from Devil’s Pool and the rafting, the park was just ok. It would’ve been better to go on the Zim side, but I still couldn’t enter that country.
I had never seen an intermunicipal bus with 5 seats per row.
Other things in Livingstone
The Livingstone Museum ($5) is nice as it has a lot of anthropological and historical content. There is a small restaurant, Sepo Yaka, next to it that sells good traditional food that is fast (like a buffet) and cheap (45 for the vegetarian lunch). Then there’s Curio Market, your typical touristy market where everyone tries to sell the traditional souvenirs with cliche lines (not that great) and the Maramba Market a good 30 min walk from Curio. Not touristy at all, there are clothes, household stuff and some produce. It’s fun to walk through it, but you may not buy anything unless maybe you need to replace something you lost.
In the end I couldn’t see the Falls from the Vic Falls (Zim) side. But I hear the view is better since that park has a larger area of the Falls. Other activities that were recommended but I didn’t do are the Elephant Cafe, boat cruises, bungee jumping, and helicopter/microlight rides. See this Culture Trip list.
Bus Vic Falls to Harare
When I finally got a visa for Zim, I crossed the border close to 7pm, went straight to the bus station and got a ticket ($30) with Stallion for an overnight bus to Harare leaving Vic Falls at 8:30. The other option was ExtraCity leaving at 9pm but I was told by multiple people that Stallion was better. Since it was late to get a sim card, I had to ask one of the drivers to let me use his phone to tell my friend in Harare I was soon going to be on my way there, and we then ate some corn on the cob (2 corns for $1) at the station. The bus was full and wasn’t the most comfortable one. It was hot for the first few hours and none of these buses have toilets. We reached Bulawayo around 2:30 am, and Harare around 8:45 am. The guy sitting next to me also let me use his phone to update my friend and later to tell her the exact pick-up location since there was no station but rather it was a stop in a highway, a little after the National Heroes’, a place called the Bus Show.
My time in Harare was short but sweet. I walked around the City Center starting at the Eastgate Centre, a building modeled after termite mounds with methods that passively cool the indoor environment. I then passed through the Africa Unity Square Gardens, which recently got a bikes mural and a container that will also be a space dedicated space for bikes, visited the Cathedral, walked on the pedestrian street that is 1st Street, walked around the Harare Gardens, and visited the National Gallery of Zimbabwe ($2 for locals, $10 for foreigners). The Botanical Gardens were a little further north but are supposed to be nice too. Also, in city center there is the Copacabana bus station and market, where locals gather to sell a variety of products depending on the time of the day, and it is interesting to see it and walk through it.
Harare is a very sprawling city. There is very little density of basically anything everywhere except in the city center. Any neighborhood that is not city center feels like suburbia. The city was built on a wetland, so there are patches of small wetlands everywhere in the city, though they are mostly dried up given planners planted trees that suck up hundreds of liters of water a day so they could build on that land. I was staying with a Colombian friend, and luckily a friend of hers was available to give me a quick bike tour. We visited an area that has poor, but some, bike infrastructure where civil society and some organizations are pushing to make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, particularly kids that go to the school in the area. It was a quick 7 km ride, but I got to see some bike paths that were built back in the 60’s or so and that need urgent upgrades for the safety of all road users. I also got to see a local friend from The Resolution Project Fellowship to catch up over breakfast.
It was quite hard to navigate Harare: it was hard to get and activate a sim card, there was never WiFi, everything is very expensive (including taxis and food), places don’t really take payments with international credit cards, and a lot of times there are electricity and water outages. The economy has been struggling for a while, and a lot of people who can afford to do so are leaving the country. Mind you, Zimbabweans level of education is very high. At some point, the country reached close to 100% literacy rates. Regardless, it is a very lively city with people walking everywhere in the city center and taking cars everywhere just outside of the city center. Everyone speaks English and is nice, though walking by myself near some parks I did get catcalled and felt uncomfortable at times.
While the Victoria Falls are clearly the top attraction in Zimbabwe, there are other places worth visiting, including Mtarazi Falls (near the border with Mozambique) and Mana Pools (near the border with Zambia). Check out Popoma Travel, which my friend from college founded. He was very helpful in providing advice before my trip. Note that people tend to travel outside of the city by car. It would be ideal to rent one since things are far and buses are not the most comfortable. Harare is a good place to check out on the way from Bots to Moz, creating a nice route to see three neighboring but very different countries.